Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.10: Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 76/B+

Everyone needs a paycheck. With the exception of someone as wildly successful as Steven Spielberg, sometimes directors just need to take on a project in order to make something, anything. That was the case with 1986’s The Color of Money, a sequel to the 1961 classic The Hustler. Scorsese agreed to make the film in order to show that he could make a commercial film (and, perhaps, get The Last Temptation of Christ greenlit). But while it’s certainly one of Scorsese’s least immediately personal projects, that doesn’t make it entirely impersonal.

“Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, reprising his greatest character) was once a promising young pool hustler, but now he’s an aging liquor salesman who never quite achieved greatness. One night, Eddie meets Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), a cocky young man with a natural talent for pool. Eddie takes Vincent and his girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) on the road to show them the ropes to hustling, but eventually he parts with the two. Eddie goes back to pool to face off with Vincent at a major championship in Atlantic City.

The Color of Money is Scorsese’s slickest film to date, sometimes to a fault- the grit and unbearable tension of Scorsese’s best films is largely absent, and the too-80s soundtrack doesn’t help natters. But it’s still a Scorsese movie, and the technical bravura on display is still striking. This is Scorsese’s second film with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and like After Hours, its assured, dynamic use of whip pans and tracking shots  (along with Thelma Schoonmaker’s typically energetic editing) gives the film a lot of momentum. It doesn’t totally disguise the film’s episodic nature, but it makes for a number of memorable episodes- I’m particularly fond of the long tracking shot around the pool table as Cruise dances/shoots to “Werewolves of London”, which frames him almost like a god, albeit the most childish, cockiest god in the world.

What might be most notable about The Color of Money’s style, however, is how Scorsese takes his time to establish character and environment. Mike D’Angelo handled the film’s fantastic opening better than I could in his Scenic Routes column, but I’m also knocked out by the dinner scene between Eddie, Vincent, and Carmen. Scorsese has always been a master of using slight camera movements to communicate something about his characters, and his pushes towards Vincent as Eddie calls him “an incredible flake” show the dent in the young man’s ego even as Cruise barely changes facial expressions, making him seem closer to Newman in a way that’s essential for the film to work.

Cruise was a rising star at this point (Top Gun was released the same year and shot him into the stratosphere), but with the exception of Risky Business, he hadn’t really had a chance to show how good of an actor he could be. It’s an archetypical Tom Cruise role, to be sure, but he’s quite good as the ostentatious, relentlessly brash showoff Vincent, his goofball dances and affectations suggesting a caffeinated version of Newman’s character in the first film. What makes this more than just a standard-issue Cruise performance is the lack of confidence beneath the surface, best shown whenever Carmen suggests she might leave him.

Mastrantonio hasn’t done much since the early-90s, and it’s a damn shame considering how good she is at playing women who are infinitely smarter than their male counterparts (see also: The Abyss). Carmen might actually be the most interesting character in the film- she’s manipulative of Vincent, but that doesn’t make her less affectionate. She’s wiser to the world, but she still doesn’t know when she’s pushed Vincent too far (her casual nudity around Newman irks both men, and a later confrontation connected to it is the tensest scene in the film).

But even with strong performances from Cruise and Mastrantonio (and some nice early roles for John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a coke-addicted Eddie protégé and a hustler who pulls the wool over Eddie, respectively), the film is a Newman showcase. Many thought Newman’s belated Oscar-win for this film was an apology for his many losses in the past (The Hustler included). There’s likely some truth in that, but it doesn’t change how assured he is as an older, wiser, but still deeply flawed “Fast” Eddie. He’s more cooly confident, and his past mistakes make him a potentially better mentor to Vincent than George C. Scott’s Burt was to him. But he’s still, to some degree, a loser- a guy who never made it as far as he should have, a guy who never knows when to give up and move on.

The film’s opening monologue (delivered by Scorsese in narration) about luck is all about Eddie- he never had any, and even when it seems like things are going good, there’s a reminder like Whitaker’s young hustler to show how he can still get the runaround. His romance with Helen Shaver is a bit marginalized, but that’s largely the point- he’s willing to marginalize the one thing going for him and risk loneliness for another shot at the top. That loneliness, the sense of not giving up for another shot of glory, is something Scorsese understands. The film gets a more hopeful ending than many Scorsese films (though Shaver’s resignation that she’ll have to put up with more of Eddie’s shit suggests there’s something sadder underneath the triumphant blues rock), but that feeling makes it more than just a work-for-hire.

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